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Bicycling takes off in Las Vegas. Are you ready to pedal?

Leaving a fast-food joint with breakfast, you stop at a light. As you check the contents of the carb-chocked bag on your lap, you notice a slight bulge of belly hanging over your seat belt. You look up just in time to see a pack of cyclists whizz by, logoed spandex stretched over lean legs.

"I gotta get in shape," you think to yourself, "but that’s not me. I’ll never get up at 5 a.m., put on that goofy gear and risk my life racing around these dangerous streets for two hours."

There are plenty of reasons not to cycle, and you’ve told yourself all of them: You’re not in good enough shape; Las Vegas isn’t a bike-friendly town; there’s nowhere to ride; it’s too dangerous/expensive/geeky/mechanically challenging. But if you’ve still got a little kid inside who remembers how fun riding a bike is — if you secretly long for that freedom — set aside the skeptic for a moment and consider this.

IT’S A GOOD WORKOUT FOR ANY BODY

Just ask Anthony Ripamonti.

"I was never active," Ripamonti says. "I was that kid who got picked last for team sports in school gym class."

At age 34, Ripamonti wasn’t feeling so hot. A physical exam showed he had high blood pressure and cholesterol, and his blood-sugar level was off. He was also overweight, carrying 225 pounds on a 5 foot-9 inch frame.

The doctor wrote him a stack of prescriptions, the wake-up call Ripamonti needed to change his sedentary lifestyle. Rather than fill the scrips, he decided to exercise. He started with running, but found it too hard on his knees because of the extra weight. His wife suggested cycling, so he bought a bike and gave it a try.

That was October 2009. Today, Ripamonti weighs 145 pounds and rides his bike 170 to 200 miles per week, in addition to running 25 to 30 miles and swimming 12,000 meters. As the training program suggests, he now competes in triathlons. Cycling helped him lose the weight necessary to start running; swimming followed soon after.

"I’m in the best condition I’ve ever been in," Ripamonti says. "I never get tired. Because I found this routine in my life, it’s turned everything else around, and not just athletically. I used to be a disorganized slob; now I’m more organized and neat. People say I look younger."

You don’t have to go all out like Ripamonti did to reap the benefits of cycling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to remain healthy, adults need only 2½ hours or more of moderate intensity exercise each week. That includes riding a bike on flat terrain or with a few hills. The CDC says long workouts aren’t a must, either; even 10 to 15 minute chunks a couple times a day are fine. The point is to be active.

"Unlike with many other activities, anybody from age 8 to 88 can ride a bike," says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.

It’s low impact, easy on the joints, doesn’t require a trip to the gym and is still an efficient workout, he adds.

A 150-pound person burns 135 calories in a half-hour of recreational cycling. A 200-pound person burns 180. As time and intensity increase, so does the number of calories burned.

VEGAS GETTING MORE BIKE FRIENDLY

Like any physical activity, riding a bike isn’t risk-free. According to the Nevada Department of Public Safety, car-bike collisions in Clark County killed one cyclist in 2011, down from three in 2010. Clark County is about average in the number of reported deaths and injuries from car-bike collisions compared with surrounding states.

A movement for greater cyclist safety is making headway. A state law went into effect in November requiring motorists to pass cyclists either by moving over a full lane to the left (if a lane is available), or by leaving at least three feet between the car and the cyclist.

Local bicycling advocates are plastering the national movement’s slogan, "3 feet please," on bumper stickers, shirts and websites to raise awareness.

One such advocate is Lisa Caterbone, who started the website BikingLasVegas.com four years ago to give cyclists a way to meet and share information. Caterbone says bicycle riding is gaining popularity. Her site’s active users went from zero to more than 2,000 in four years, she says, and the number of cycling events she puts on the calendar has risen every year.

The more people ride bikes, the more drivers become aware of bikes on the road.

To complete the circle of responsibility, Caterbone and others are offering more and more classes to teach beginning cyclists the rules for riding safely. They’re happening all over the city in bike shops, as well as community centers and public schools.

Clarke spends about a week in Las Vegas each fall for the cycling industry’s annual trade show, Interbike. He says he has noticed a significant commitment to improving conditions for cycling in Las Vegas, coming from both the private and public sectors.

"It’s a fantastic destination for cycling," he says. "There’s good mountain biking and road biking, and the local clubs and riding groups are great."

He adds that Las Vegas has one of the best cycling infrastructures in the nation, as far as suburban and ex-urban bike lanes and paths go, as well as a public transit system that accommodates bikes.

"The greatest challenge and area for improvement is the everyday street in between all those cycling places," Clark says. "I think that’s the next step, making the everyday streets more bike friendly."

HUNDREDS OF PLACES TO RIDE

The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada is trying to take the next step Clarke describes.

Having secured federal funds for active transportation and infrastructure improvement, the RTC is planning to add 115 new miles of bike lanes and 60 miles of bike routes in Southern Nevada this year. The commission partnered with the City of Las Vegas to create a web of bike routes covering downtown and connecting schools to recreation facilities, and it’s spearheading an effort to link bike routes around the valley into one large network.

These routes aren’t just for athletes and other serious riders. Parks and residential communities have lots of short, scenic paths that are ideal for recreational riders, says Ron Floth, the RTC’s bicycle and community outreach coordinator. They’re all plotted on a free, frequently updated map available at bike shops or www.rtcsnv.com/cycling.

Caterbone says anyone of any level in any part of town can find a good ride on this map: "Parents who are talking about taking out preteen to teenage kids could do certain loops that have low traffic. For instance, in the Lakes area, there’s a 1.66-mile bike path that loops around that neighborhood. Three times around, you’ve gone five miles."

Besides improving infrastructure, the RTC supports the efforts of BikingLasVegas.com and other cycling groups to make the city more bike-friendly. It offers free classes twice a week at the RTC Bike Center on Bonneville and Casino Center Drive, partners with Safe Routes to School and sponsors the area’s largest annual cycling event, Viva Bike Vegas, which includes a flat, 17-mile ride up and down the Strip, in addition to the more challenging 72- and 118-mile rides.

David Swallow, RTC director of engineering services and capital projects, encourages people to check out rides offered not only by his agency and BikingLasVegas.com, but also by groups such as the Las Vegas Valley Bicycle Club and Green Valley Cyclists, as well as bike shops. Most of these include beginner and family rides.

"People feel more comfortable when they’re with other cyclists," Swallow says. "When you’re riding with a bunch of people, you have more fun; but they can also offer technical assistance."

IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE COMPLICATED

If thinking about changing your own flat tire or navigating the rows of bike equipment in a sporting goods store makes you shudder, take heart. Clarke says, "You don’t need any special gear. The bike in your garage will work just fine for getting started. Take it to the shop and get it fixed up, and you could be on the road this weekend."

Most bike shops charge around $60 for a bike tune-up, not including fees for broken and missing parts.

A $60 premium membership at the RTC’s Downtown Bike Center comes with safe bike storage privileges, use of private lockers and showers and unlimited bike tune-ups for a year in the on-site bike shop.

In addition to teaching safety, shops and cycling clubs offer classes (most free) on changing flats and doing other basic bike maintenance. Many group rides start and stop around bike shops, where mechanics can help in emergencies. And, as the RTC’s Swallow notes, riding with a group means someone’s got your back in case of a breakdown.

If your schedule is too crammed for group rides, Floth says, consider commuting to work.

The RTC is doing various things to make it easier for people to integrate bike rides into bus commutes; examples are easy-access bike racks on the fronts of buses, and a Club Ride program with discounts and other incentives.

"When you ride your bike, transit becomes much more accessible," Swallow says. "Anybody who can ride a bike has full access to anywhere in town."

Clarke says riding just 20 minutes to and from work each day provides an adult with their recommended weekly amount of exercise.

Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of bicycling — and one that all sources agree on — is the pure pleasure.

Ripamonti says, "It’s so fun that you will look back at that choice and not believe you hesitated."

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